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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alpine Scenery
By Étienne Pivert de Senancour (1770–1846)
 
From ‘Obermann’

IMAGINE a plain of white and limpid water. It is vast but circumscribed; in shape oblong and somewhat circular, it stretches toward the winter sunset. From lofty summits, majestic chains close it in on three sides. You are seated on the slope of the mountain, above the northern strand which the waves alternately quit and then recover. Perpendicular rocks are behind you. They rise to the region of clouds. The sad polar wind has never breathed upon this happy shore. At your left open the mountains: a tranquil valley stretches along their depths; a torrent descending from snowy summits closes it; and when the morning sun shines on the mists between the frozen peaks, when voices from the mountains indicate chalets above the meadows still in shadow, it is the awakening of primitive earth,—it is a monument of our destinies ignored!  1
  Behold the first nocturnal moments, the hour of repose and sublime sadness. The valley is hazy, it begins to grow dark. Toward noon, the lake is in night. The rocks surrounding it are a shadowy belt under the icy dome which surmounts them, and which seems to retain the daylight in its rime. Its last fires gild the numerous chestnut-trees on the wild rocks: they pass in long rays under the lofty spires of the Alpine pines, they burnish the mountains, they illume the snows, they kindle the air; and the waveless water, glowing with light and blending with the heavens, becomes infinite like them, and still purer, more ethereal, more beautiful. Its calm astonishes, its limpidity deceives, the airy splendor it reflects seems to penetrate its depths; and under these mountains, separated from the globe, and as it were suspended in space, you find at your feet the emptiness of heaven and the immensity of the world. Then there is a time of illusion and oblivion. You no longer know where the sky is, where the mountains are, nor where you stand. You no longer find a level; there is no longer a horizon. Your ideas change, your sensations are novel, you have emerged from common life. And when the darkness has covered this valley of water, when the eye no longer discerns objects or distances, when the evening wind has raised the waves,—then the end of the lake toward the sunset is illumined by a pale light, but all that the mountains surround is only an indistinguishable gulf. And in the midst of darkness and silence, you hear, a thousand feet below, the rhythmic cadence of the ceaseless waves which tremble on the beach at regular intervals, are swallowed up in the rocks, and break against the wall with a sound which echoes like a long murmur in the invisible abyss.  2
  It is in sounds that nature has placed the strongest expression of the romantic character. Especially by the sense of hearing we receive strongly, and in a few touches, the realization of extraordinary places and things. Odors produce quick and immense but vague perceptions; those of sight seem to affect the mind rather than the heart: we admire what we see, but we feel what we hear. The voice of a beloved woman is still more beautiful than her features. The sounds which render places sublime make an impression profounder and more durable than is created by their forms. I have never seen a picture of the Alps which made them as truly present to me as the Alpine air itself.  3
  The ‘Ranz des Vaches’ does not merely recall memories, it paints. I know that Rousseau has said the contrary, but I think he was mistaken. This is not an imaginary effect: it happened that as two persons were glancing over the ‘Tableaux Pittoresques de la Suisse’ [Picturesque Views of Switzerland], both said at sight of the Grimsel, “There is the spot to hear the ‘Ranz des Vaches.’” If expressed with truth rather than skill, if he who plays it feels it deeply, the first sounds take us to the high valleys, under the bare reddish-gray rocks, under the cold sky, under the burning sun. You are on the top of the rounding summits covered with pastures. You realize the slowness of things, and the grandeur of the place. There is the slow march of the cows and the measured movement of their great bells, near the clouds, in the gently sloping stretch from the crests of immovable granite to the ruined granite of the snowy ravines. The winds shiver austerely in the distant larches; you discern the rolling of a torrent in the precipices where it has been excavating for long centuries. To these sounds isolated in the space, succeed the hurried heavy accents of the küheren [the men who lead the cows to the high pastures and care for them there]; nomad expression of a pleasure without gayety,—of a mountain joy. The songs cease. The men are going away; the bells have passed the larches; you hear nothing but the shock of falling pebbles, and the interrupted fall of trees pushed toward the valley by the torrent. The wind intensifies or holds back these Alpine sounds; and when you lose them, all seems cold, dead, and motionless. It is the domain of the man who feels no eagerness. He comes out from under the broad low roof which is assured against tempests by heavy stones. If the sun is burning, if the wind is strong, if the thunder is rolling under his feet, he does not know it. He goes where the cows should be: they are there. He calls them: they gather together, they approach one after another; and he returns with the same slowness, loaded with the milk destined for the plains he will not know. The cows stop; they chew the cud. There is no visible movement, there are no more men. The air is cold, the wind has ceased with the evening light; there remain only the gleam of the ancient snows and the fall of waters, the wild murmur of which, rising from the depths, seems to add to the silent permanence of the glaciers, the lofty summits, and the night.  4
 
 
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